Monday, May 14, 2012
It is generally considered the height of nerdiness to debate which of two fictional characters would win in a fight. I have in the past heard heated argument over how much Kryptonite it would take for Batman to have a chance against Superman or whether the limits of Wolverine's healing abilities extended to, say, getting eaten by the Hulk. Utterly trivial, to be sure. But when the Marvel all-stars spend a good chunk of The Avengers' running time arranging and rearranging themselves into groups to beat the holy bejesus out of each other, such questions become increasingly pressing.
Can Captain America (super soldier) really hang in there against Thor (demigod)? Can Iron Man (normal man in a super suit) withstand a punch from Hulk (hulk)? I will suspend my disbelief over the incredible awesomeness of the Iron Man suit up to a point, but Tony Stark is still a person in there with the traditional human skeleton, yes? How many concrete walls can Hulk launch him through before JARVIS pops open that suit to find a glowing blue circle sitting atop a pile of bloody pulp? Considering the amount of crap we all gave Lucas and Spielberg for having Indiana Jones survive a nuclear blast in a fridge, it seems fair to ask.
This may seem like nitpicking, but it actually plays into the overall verdict on The Avengers. One expects that any film that has churned up such momentous hype over the idea of superheroes from various franchises appearing together for the first time in one mega-movie would have some fun with the ways the characters interact. Alas, The Avengers expends most of its energy gathering the heroes only to throw them against a generic alien invasion just when they are getting interesting. Whedon's film easily qualifies as an above average Summer blockbuster. I don't imagine many people are going to leave the theater disappointed. It is only when it is viewed in comparison to the enormous potential of the project that it starts to come up short.
The deck was stacked against Whedon from the start. Spreading a consistent Marvel universe out over a series of interlocking franchises is a project equal to, if not surpassing, the ambition of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But of course that franchise was Peter Jackson's baby from the start. The anticipation on Avengers is so intense I get the impression fans expect Whedon to not only make this film into a blinding triumph but also retroactively redeem the half dozen preceding Marvel titles of all their flaws. It is the equivalent of dropping Peter Jackson into the director's chair for Return of the King after somebody else mucked up Two Towers and they've already rebooted The Hobbit twice and, by the way, don't go too crazy with the story because Gollum is getting his own spinoff franchise.
Within this constricting box Whedon does a pretty damn good job. Characters pop with more personality than in previous incarnations and the trademark Whedon wit is present even if it is occasionally drowned out by the box office friendly destruction. When one stops to considering the disjointed, leaden mess this franchise collision could have been, one increasingly appreciates the lightness of touch the director manages to maintain throughout.
Whedon orchestrate the spectacle so smoothly, in fact, that one could be forgiven for overlooking the fact that the plot is a thundering afterthought. With all the heavy lifting it takes to move the pieces into place, it is understandable that the plot wouldn't be any more complicated than "Oh no! Space monsters!" but even then, as alien invasions go this is some pretty weak tea. The invaders are off the shelf reptilian aliens, and the forces of their entire advanced civilization only manage to tear up a dozen or so square blocks of Manhattan. They are basically a big-budget version of the wobbly stuntmen that were always menacing the Power Rangers.
The strain of pulling the various franchises together also shows in the plot cracks that begin to pile up as the story unfolds. Whedon is usually careful to avoid such slip ups in his more personal projects, but here it starts to get away from him. When Hulk goes from uncontrollable destruction machine to reliable hero with no explanation or Loki's mind control abilities come and go at the convenience of the plot I know I'm supposed to say, "It's just a comic book movie. Roll with it." but after a while it starts to detract from the fun when the screenplay keeps asking you to leap over gaps in logic.
Once you get past the idea the Avengers as a milestone in big screen entertainment it remains a satisfying entry in the superhero canon, a notch below Spiderman 2 or the first Iron Man but still on the high end of the scale. Whedon so excels in mining the idiosyncrasies of his characters that it left me longing for an alternate Avengers movie where the lame aliens hordes never materialize and we simply hang with the team as they bicker over who gets the prime parking spot at Avengers headquarters.
Tony Stark's egomaniacal charm has become familiar at this point, but Whedon returns some the snap to the character that got lost in the muddle of Iron Man 2. Avengers also does more with Pepper Potts in about 4 minutes of screen time in the whole of her last film. Likewise, Captain America transforms from the somewhat dull evil-puncher of his solo film to a guy with some interesting wrinkles in his "aw shucks" boy scout attitude. Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye remains mostly untapped potential, and it's a struggle to keep Johannson's super spy relevant amongst all the epic clashes, but Whedon makes sure that we don't reach the end credits without all the big players having a handful of moments to shine.
Now that the Avengers have at long last assembled I suppose I could stow my minor disappointment and look to the sequel to fulfill this project's vast potential. I worry, though, that the level of the threat must remain cranked up to deafening levels in order to justify such an awesome collection of costumed might. It's hard to picture the Avengers placing such a high focus on street crime as Spiderman, for example. Whedon's gift to this franchise is his ability to sharpen the personalities of these beloved characters. Now his challenge is to find a way to tie that into the large scale action without getting swallowed up by it.
Verdict: Audiences have grown to love these characters over the decades because countless artists have been free to explore them on the page. Joss Whedon could continue that tradition on the screen if he can overcome the limitations of working on such a huge scale. With this first film he is off to a good start, but he's not there yet. 7 out of 10